Matt Jones

Former Player Remembers: Matt Jones

Welsh international midfielder Matt Jones signed for Leicester City from Leeds United for an initial fee of £3M in December 2000 - one of several talking points during his conversation with Club Historian John Hutchinson.
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Matt's career ended prematurely at the age of 23, but he is nonetheless remembered fondly by the Club's supporters and has an inspiring story to tell about overcoming adversity.

On his early days in the game, he said: “I was born and brought up in Llanelli. I became a Swansea Cygnet at the age of nine, training twice a week and playing at weekends. I was also a young mascot at the old Vetch Field. A good grounding for me was playing with my brother’s friends who were two years older than me.

“As boys, we played for Swansea against teams from further afield. An Oxford scout took me there for a trial and then Chelsea approached me. I came very close to signing for them but a scout from Llanelli, who was a former Leeds player invited me up to Leeds.

“For a couple of years, I was travelling back and forth to Leeds. Then I went to live there when I was 14. I waved goodbye to my mum at Llanelli station. There were a lot of tears. I went alone on a seven or eight hour journey to Leeds, sacrificing everything for the love of the game.

“Because I showed a lot of maturity in leaving my family behind at a young age, I got respected quite quickly from the coaches, Paul Hart and Eddie Gray. Howard Wilkinson was the manager. Gordon Strachan, Gary Speed, Gary McAllister and Eric Cantona were there. Gary Speed was one of the first big players who welcomed me to the club. This was so inspirational for me. We had a wonderful friendship over 20 years. Gary recognised that I was a young Welsh boy who had taken a massive step leaving home. He found out my name and where I had come from. Leeds had achieved so much and it wasn’t hard to get motivation from the players who were at the club.

“Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, Steve McPhail, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Ian Harte and Gary Kelly were in the same academy-winning side with myself. We had won the league which was very tough, and then the FA Youth Cup which was very prestigious. When we won Youth Cup, live on Sky Sports, when I scored in the first leg with a diving header, my celebrations indicated that I was not used to scoring goals!

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Matt Jones
Matt Jones

Jones broke into a supremely talented Leeds team early in his career.

“We all went into the reserve team and won the reserve league. The manager David O’Leary said we must grab the opportunity to get into the first team with both hands and make sure that no one took that opportunity away from us. Everyone played on the line for each other. When I coach young players now, I tell them that successful teams play and work as a team.

“About 40 young boys who were in the youth teams lived in a hostel near Thorpe Park training ground. We lived for football. My room-mate was a Norwegian player called Tommy Knarvik. We both made our debut in an FA Cup match at Portsmouth, coming on at the same minute. We won 5-1. The following week, I made my starting debut against Aston Villa. We beat them 2-1 and I set up Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for the winning goal.

“Leeds became so successful, coming third in the league and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League. 

“I had planned to be a one-club man but because of European and Premier League football, game time couldn’t be guaranteed. I needed to play every Saturday. David O’Leary told me some clubs were interested in signing me. Leeds had just spent a £28M on Rio Ferdinand and wanted to recoup some of the fee. David Weatherall and Darren Huckerby left the club. I had been a player who hadn’t cost a penny and they were having offers in the region of £3-£4M.

“Leicester, Charlton, Middlesbrough and Blackburn were interested in me. I went to Leicester on the Tuesday and I was going to see Graeme Souness the following day at Blackburn. I thought I would be most attracted to Blackburn.

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Matt Jones
Matt Jones

He earned 13 caps for his country between 1999 and 2003.

“I was impressed that Leicester was a family orientated club which is what I had been used to at Leeds. They made me feel welcome the minute I walked through the door. Peter Taylor, a very well respected coach, was very inspiring in terms of what he wanted to achieve for me. I felt the responsibility and the importance of stepping into Neil Lennon’s no.7 shirt. It was a great opportunity for me to shine.

“I had a good first spell at Leicester. My debut was against Charlton at home. We won 2-1. I remember being involved in the build up to both goals. In the first couple of minutes, I knocked the ball over Mark Kinsella's head then I did a couple of keep ups and then I knocked it back over his head!

“Leading up to the Christmas period, we were sitting fourth in the table. Peter Taylor started to purchase some new players. There was a lot of pressure on him to add depth to the squad. That was very difficult. It was a shame when we started to plummet down the table, especially the following season.”

In January 2002, Matt suffered a very serious injury at Anfield: “The first major injury I picked up was due to me taking things for granted. I had always pushed myself so hard to be successful. This was the only time in my career I felt I could sit back and relax slightly. That was a mistake, because my fitness started going down. Inevitably, when you are unfit, you start picking up injuries.

“I would still give 100 per cent, even if I wasn’t match fit. That’s when you start straining and stretching for balls. At Anfield, I had lost the ball in an early part of the game which led to Liverpool’s opening goal. After that, my whole performance became desperate. I wasn’t fit. When I went in for the tackle on Gary McAllister, I just over stretched for the ball. My whole body landed on the opposite side of my knee. I ruptured my cruciate. There was a massive explosion in my knee, something I had never experienced before. 

“The scan revealed a ruptured cruciate, that I needed an operation and that I would be out for a year. The physio turned it straight into a positive. He said that Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy had suffered this injury and look at them. He said it wouldn’t stop me from becoming a great player. Those words stuck with me. Every time I woke up in pain, or in agony, thinking I can’t do this, it motivated me to get up and get on with it.

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Matt Jones
Matt Jones

Matt was brought to the Club by Peter Taylor in 2000.

“A lot happened at that time. When I was injured, we were in the Premier League with Peter Taylor in charge. When I came back we were in the Championship with Micky Adams. He was totally different but he had my backing. He believed, even though he hadn’t worked with me, that I was a great player. When I came back, I was in the fittest condition I had ever been in. I felt so strong, but match fitness was missing.

“In the 2003/04 pre-season, I went on a short loan spell to Paul Hart’s Nottingham Forest to get match fitness and come back all guns firing for Leicester, newly promoted back into the Premier League. I had a wonderful pre-season. Paul Hart pushes you to the limit. You train to intensities that you have never reached before. We played a pre-season friendly at the City Ground against Ajax. Wanting to impress I threw myself into a tackle.

“This time my knee survived but my back caved in under me from the angle I fell. I just felt a big crunch to my back. I tried carrying on for a bit but I ended up coming off. I travelled home myself that evening regardless of the pain. The following morning, when I woke up, the pain was so extreme! I’d never experienced pain like it in my life before. I had two prolapsed discs in my spine. I went through hell after that. As I was going into surgery, I was told by a surgeon I may end up in a wheelchair. I had to start thinking about would I ever be able to walk again?

“With two discs removed, I had to start thinking realistically. I would never play football again.

“I was being kept positive by the physios and by my own mentality. If I gave up then, the chances are I may have ended up in a wheelchair. My focus was that one day, if I have children, I want to be able to bend over and pick them up. I did a diary and made a list of things I couldn’t do today but would like to do next week. I was writing things like I would like to stand for more than one minute and I would like to be able to bend over to brush my teeth without being in agony.

“Being a mentally tough person, I always believed that I could prove people wrong. I had gone through 18 months of torture and intensive rehab. We had an altitude chamber in the gym to help you get fit. When I was able to walk on the treadmill it was like Christmas morning! I remember one day, I had drops of sweat dripping down the side of my face. I hadn’t experienced that for a long time. It felt like heaven. That was one of the biggest achievements of my rehabilitation because it meant that I was actually moving again.

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Matt Jones
Matt Jones

Jones' only goal for the Foxes came against Middlesbrough in September 2001.

“I was never going to play football again. It’s heartbreaking but I thank every single person at Leicester City for their time and their effort. When I was out injured, the love and respect I had from the supporters was incredible. Even though we didn’t win trophies, they had seen my capabilities.  

“The most devastating day of my life was the press conference when I had to sit in front of everyone and say I was retiring. My career was like a dream. As a kid, every time I blew the candles out on my birthday cakes, I wished to be a football player. I felt as if my wishes were coming true and that I was living the dream. When I was told officially that I wouldn’t be able to play football again, it was like being woken up from my dream.

“The highlight of my career was playing for Wales on 13 occasions. Most of these were alongside Gary Speed. Playing in the Millennium Stadium when it was full to capacity when we beat Italy and drew with Germany with Mark Hughes in charge was memorable.

“Post-football, I did some commentary work for BBC Radio Leicester, and started doing some coaching at the Club with the younger levels. Financially, my investments were done correctly which allowed me to have a little bit of luxury in my life.

“This all helped me carve out a bit of a media career. I had contact with Martin Tyler, who works for Sky Sports, as I had always had time for him during my playing career. What you do for others will be returned at some time in your life.”

When this interview took place, Matt was coaching at Swansea City’s Academy. In June 2020, he stepped down from this role after five years to take up the newly-created post of manager of the Wales Under-18s team.

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